A fictional homage to my father – and his northern English genealogy
Plaque at St. Bees (from http://josweeney.net/the-cliff-path-from-st-bees-to-whitehaven/ 7 miles to Whitehaven but this is the start of a 192 mile Coast-to-Coast walk that will take you all the way to Robin Hood’s Bay in North York.
(Sound Effects) heavy breathing, feet pounding earth.
I am Peter N F Nixon, scholar at St. Bees Prep School in Cumberland, and I am running, running away back in time. So stated the boss-eyed academic in the school library last evening, the guest lecturer from the Northern England Geological Society.
“If you take the coastal path,” he said, “from St Bees Head to Whitehaven Lighthouse, it is as if you are going back in time as the youngest rocks are at Seacote. Early Triassic Age, just 250 million years old.”
Funny how I remember that. I was preoccupied with next week’s big rugby match against the tough cads from the colliery. The geordies. The coal miners. I attended the lecture only because I knew there’d be a fire lit in the library. Although it’s my right as head prefect to sit on the radiator in my freezing dorm room (with windows always open) it is slim consolation this early in spring. I could see my breath as I crossed the quad last night to get to the library.
Yes, funny how the geology lecture is all coming back to me as I run and run back in time along the windy coastal path to the lighthouse at Whitehaven on the Cumbrian coast where the seabirds are engaged in their noisy mating rituals.
I am leading a penal drill with a few miscreant lower classmen who flung their gas-masks out the window to celebrate the war with Hitler being over. Who told them the war was already over, just a few months after it was declared?
I am the house prefect and it is my duty to drill good sense into my younger charges’ heads by making them run long distances, whatever the season. It’s no punishment for me – mickeying-off like this – or for most of them, to be honest. We are battle-hardened prep school pupils here at St Bees. Classes in the morning and sports in the afternoon, every day, rain or shine or snow.
We all wear short pants at St. Bees. It’s our uniform. I run and run and run in my short pants.17 years old, 6 foot 3 and a half and still in short pants.
Senior XV Rugby 1938-39. Webpage of the Old Beghian Society (see link below). My father is top row, 4th from left. The scarf must represent his house.
I’m far ahead of the pack. Truth be told, I am no leader of men. More of a loner at heart. So, I leave the kids to their own pace. I get no pleasure in being a prefect. I don’t like minging on them. I don’t look for trouble or for a reason to cane.
Let’s see, what else did the lecturer say? “ North of St. Bees there are carboniferous-age coal outcrops and limestone outcrop, south of St. Bees permo-Triassic red sandstone. Moulded through the eons by glacial processes. Glacial means slow, doesn’t it? Very slow.
I want it all to slow down. This war, despite the rumours to the contrary, is just starting. I can sense it. I am to turn 18 soon. I will have to sign up.
I am running back in time to slow things down, geologic time, historical time – but at a good clip, leaving my younger charges behind. I am one of the school’s finest middle distance runners, but the county record holder at javelin. Vice Captain of the Senior Rugby. I can swim with the best of them, but it’s golf I really enjoy, though, alone on the links of our school’s golf course.
I am running, running into the past.
The Normans, the Norse, the Anglo-Saxons, the Romans, the Briton Voltadini and the Celtic Brigantes tribes. Castles up, monasteries down, crusades to the east, crusades to the north. Saint Bega, for whom our school is named, founding the religious site about 1000 years ago by fleeing a forced marriage in Ireland. Or so the story goes. And then 100 years later the Lord Egremont, the Norman, building the Benedictine Priory, the town parish, over it.
All around me there are fossilized strips of former medieval field systems and other remnants of the ghostly, gory, glorified past. It all weighs one down. Wouldn’t it be nice to live somewhere new with no past, no history, no weight?
If I never hear another lecture on Emperor Hadrian and his infernal wall I will be thrilled. That meandering Roman monument has only unfortunate connotations for me. I can still hear my grandfather, the Reverend John Forster, a self-educated farmer’s son, berating me at 6 years old for slacking on a long walk, “You are no Border Reiver, no bairn of mine if ye can’t walk the 7 miles from Brampton to the Birdoswol Roman Fort.”
Wouldn’t Gramps be surprised to see me now, one of the school’s most respected athletes, as I run and run, away, swiftly back in time with the myriad sea birds swirling over head riding the fickle coastal air currents coming off the Irish sea on the rugged, austerely beautiful coast of Cumberland, at St Bees Head?
This place is truly in my blood. I have border reiving ruffians on both sides of my family tree, my mother’s Forster and my father’s Nixon side. Brave scoundrels and fearless outlaws, they were raiders of cattle and sheep at the Scottish border in late medieval times and beyond. Grandfather Nixon bragged about some outlaw Nixons hanged at Carlisle Castle back when he was a boy.
Geologic time, historical time, genealogical time, family memory and family myth.
It was my first week at St Bees. Mr. McFayden, the history teacher, asked me what my middle initials N.F. stand for. “Nesfield and Forster, Sir,” I replied, embarrassed to be singled out. “Ah, Nesfield, he says. “You are then descended from Dagobert, the Merovingian Prince who married Imagne de Nessfield, a Saxon landowner. By the 17th century they were living in Yorkshire. You are then related to William Andrews Nesfield who designed the gardens at Castle Howard and Kew.”
I wrote home to my mother, in Malaya, all bristling with pride but she failed to take the bait. “Your great-grandmother, Anne Nesfield was the cook in the home of a Yorkshire solicitor, I think.”
Oh, the sin of pride.
Her father, John, socialist and pacifist – and a despiser of comfort and weak grandchildren– taught her well.
Yes, I can see and hear the seabirds swirling and dipping overhead, over those formidable yet fragile orange sandstone cliffs, home to many colonies of breeding gulls: razorbills, cormorants, guillemonts, fullmars and kittiwakes.
It’s the start of nesting season. I run and I am comforted by the birds’ loud squawking. I do love nature, her apparent simplicity here on the wild Cumberland coast; not like the bountiful Malayan landscape where I spent my first five years, as my father is a rubber planter, where there was so much fabulous flora and fauna to admire- and to fear – where I once confronted a leopard cat while tricycling near the tennis courts with my little sister.
I am running, running back in time which is better than going forward in time. It is May 9, 1940 and war was declared in September, 1939. The beach is cordoned off with barbed-wire. They have installed radar at the Whitehaven Lighthouse and barrage balloons in the town. I’ve lost 2 stone with the rationing. New students from London are pouring into St Bees, because they feel it is a relatively safe place to be. But, everyone over 18 has had to register for this war. I turn 18 in October.
I am far ahead of the pack now and I like it that way. I am a loner at heart, not a leader of men. And I will soon have to sign up.
I really doubt the war is already over. I suspect it has just begun.
My father and his sister, Denise, in 1978, sent to England to go to school in 1926, as many colonial children were. She was the one who told me the story about the leopard cat.
To Be Continued..
On May 10, 1940, Germany attacked France and the Low Countries.
School boy lingo, specific to St Bees (apparently)
Minging: Prefect looking for trouble
Mickeying off: to run away
Cad: village boy
St. Beghian Society Magazines
7 Mile Walk from St. Bees to Whitehaven with many wonderful photos of the Cumbrian Coast.
Growing up in WWII Cumbria BBC
William Andrews Nesfield bio
Border Reivers and Sir John Forster
The Geologic Story of West Cumbria